Hauspanther promotes style that's cool for cats (and their people)

New York TimesJanuary 15, 2014 

— If there is a stylish product made for cats, chances are Kate Benjamin owns it or has written about it. Or both.

Benjamin, 42, started blogging about her favorite things for cats in 2007, and over time, a business began to emerge. Readers posted fan mail. Boutique manufacturers started advertising on her site and sending samples for her to review. And the number of cats in her 1,100-square-foot condominium grew. (At last count, she had 11.)

As her advertising revenue climbed, Benjamin quit her day job as the marketing director of Boon, a company that sells modern baby products, and opened a design studio where she and her employees could create cat toys and accessories to sell on her website. And last year, she re-branded her Moderncat blog as Hauspanther, an “online magazine for design-conscious cat people.”

Next on the horizon is a consulting business built around the concept of “catification:” tailoring your living space to the needs of your cat without sacrificing aesthetics.

“The idea is to influence the mass cat-product industry to step up their game,” said Benjamin, who has teamed up with Jackson Galaxy, the cat behaviorist from the television show “My Cat from Hell,” for this effort. “We just want to be the go-to source for anyone who wants to live stylishly with cats.”

Cat lady for a new generation

As the tattoo on her arm announces, Benjamin is positioning herself as a cat lady for a new generation. A vegan with Bettie Page bangs, she has upended the old stereotype of the frumpy, middle-aged woman surrounded by cats. And her two-bedroom townhouse is a showcase of the latest in feline interior design.

The living room is filled with all manner of cat beds, scratchers, hiding spots and perches, including a miniature sun bed attached to sliding-glass doors that open to a “catio” (a patio enclosed for the protection of her cats). The centerpiece on the dining table is not a flower arrangement or a fruit bowl but a white porcelain cat bed designed to look like a sink. On the coffee table is a thronelike cat lounge that doubles as a scratcher. And a huge basket of cat toys is stationed next to the sofa.

“It is a little bit over the top,” said Benjamin, who admits to showering in the second bathroom because the master bath has been given over to litter boxes. But that’s all right, she said, because it means the cats “all have lots of options. Rarely is there a fight over places to sit.”

The crush of cat products is an inevitable consequence of having a blog that serves up a different item every day, along with a dose of attitude you will not find in the plain-vanilla pages of a magazine like Cat Fancy.

Modern, practical design

As far as she is concerned, Benjamin said, what it comes down to is good design.

“I would like to see every cat in a happy, loving forever home, and I want to keep them there through design,” said Benjamin, who studied environmental design and analysis, with an emphasis on interior design, at Cornell University and branched out into industrial design and visual communications at Arizona State University. “Because if somebody doesn’t want to buy a scratcher because the scratchers are so ugly, and then the cat scratches on the sofa, the cat’s booted onto the street or taken to the shelter. If a product design can help change that, that’s where I want to see this go.”

The people whose products appear on Hauspanther credit Benjamin with helping to build the market for designer cat furniture, a small but growing category. Once her blog became a go-to place for furnishings that appealed equally to cats and their owners, these vendors say, more specialty retailers cropped up, widening the product mix, and big chain stores such as Walmart and Target began carrying nicer-looking cat products.

“She has actually been a really good advocate for the industry as a whole,” said Sean Hamilton, whose company, Square Cat Habitat, sells cat furniture with a modern Scandinavian look and detachable carpet that people can match to their décor.

He considers Benjamin’s site the best way to reach likely buyers, and he echoed her views about the loftier purpose of high-end cat design.

“Our goal is to bring cats and their owners together,” Hamilton said. “A lot of times, people will buy these carpeted cat trees, and while they look OK at the beginning, they end up getting beat-up and looking shabby and getting put in the back room. Subsequently, the cat winds up in the back room.”

Only the best for kitty

Jed Crystal, who makes the Hepper line of pod-shaped cat beds, said that awareness of his products and others like them has “grown dramatically over the last six years, partially because of blogs like Kate’s.”

Of course, the popularity of cat pictures and videos on the Internet has not hurt demand either, he added.

But the real explanation for the emerging market for high-end cat furniture may be one of demographics. As Benjamin pointed out, many people are waiting longer to have children, and they do not want to wait to set up a nice home.

“Their pets become their children,” she said. “They’re given the best food and the best vet care. And, of course, the best products.”

Her experience with modern baby accessories served as a kind of blueprint for her current endeavors.

“We were pioneering this idea of, just because you have kids, you don’t have to have ugly stuff in your living room,” Benjamin said of her previous job. “I loved the concept, but I kept saying, ‘Well, my kids have fur.’ And nobody’s doing this in the pet product business.”

During a recent tour of her condominium, Benjamin showed off a few of the products she has promoted on her site.

She lingered over a serpentine multicat tree called the Curvynest, which “causes a firestorm every time I write about it,” she said. “Isn’t this great? People freak out every time I post something to Instagram and it’s in the background or the cats are on it, because it’s so unique, it’s so beautiful.”

High price of catification

Although a recent bout with breast cancer has prompted her to slow down a bit, Benjamin still spends mornings in her home office working on her blog, surrounded by cats. In the afternoons, she visits her studio, in an old pie factory, where she helps her three assistants pack and ship the products they make.

Benjamin is also collaborating on a book about catification with Galaxy and is an occasional guest on “My Cat from Hell,” the Animal Planet show he hosts.

He considers her an ideal foil.

“Half of the challenge that I face in my work is making spaces appealing to cats,” he said. “I know what cats want and like, and I make spaces that appeal to them. The other half of that is that we have to make the spaces appealing to humans. That’s where Kate comes in.”

The compromises that entails, however, are not without controversy.

Enclosed litter boxes, for example: “This is a HUGE debate,” Benjamin said.

Many people, Jackson included, dismiss them as revolting port-a-potties. But in her view, if the alternative is getting rid of the cat, the box should stay.

High prices are another common point of contention.

Among her readers, she said, “The biggest comment I get is, ‘A $400 cat bed! Do you know how many shelter cats that would feed?’ 

Yes, she does. But the point of showing off high-end products, she emphasized, is not necessarily to suggest that people should buy them. Rather, it is to offer DIY ideas about how people can “catify” their homes on any budget.

“Just look at that $800 cat tower, and maybe you can modify a bookshelf to do something similar, if you’re willing to do the work,” Benjamin said. “I’m not saying you have to buy it. Just please be inspired by it.”

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